A coping mechanism for panic attacks

(originally posted elsewhere, September 14, 2013)

Back in early 2009, I went through a very difficult thing. It triggered all sorts of mental health nastiness, which in turn triggered some horrible panic attacks. Having dealt with recurring bouts of depression and anxiety for most of my life, I am pretty quick to recognize when I need help in that arena, and to seek it out. At the time, I didn’t have a therapist with whom I had any sort of therapeutic relationship, and I had Medicaid, while I was awaiting my disability. So, finding a new counselor was a lot of frustrating red tape, and lots of cold-calling random offices.

Then, my doctor gave me a list. He even talked me through it, while using a star rating system for those names with which he was familiar. Susan was the third one I called.

By then, it was late July, over two months after the trauma that started the whole process, and I was becoming fairly discouraged. I left my standard voicemail, and moved on to the next number on the list.

She called me back, within an hour. She explained that she was about to leave town for a month, as she does every summer, but would be happy to make an appointment for me, for the week after she arrived home. Then, she proceeded to spend two full hours on the phone with me, talking me through some really sensitive stuff with compassion and grace and empathy, even though we’d never met.

This woman is one of my personal heroes. She has helped me to do so much of the growing and owning-of-the-shit that needed to happen, the last few years, in order for me to be healthy.

Anyway, I told you all of that to tell you this bit. She later taught me a wonderfully simplistic coping mechanism for the panic attacks. I’ve since shared it with tons of people, and I don’t think there’s a single one for whom it hasn’t worked. I don’t know why it has never occurred to me to share it here, before, but I know that many of you deal with panic attacks, too, so I thought it might be a good idea.

Panic hijacks your focus. It is your body reacting, physically, to a strongemotional reaction, and it snowballs. It feeds itself. Then, you feed it. You feel the panic, so not only are you now panicking over the original issue, you are now panicking because of the panic.

The best way to break that cycle is to recapture your focus, and redirect it to something entirely mundane and devoid of emotion.

So, you count. Out loud, at first, until the habit becomes so ingrained that you no longer need the speech as a part of the focus (this may never happen. The speech may always be necessary to you, and that’s okay, too.).

It’s going to feel extremely silly, the first time or three that you try it. Practicing this skill, outside of the actual panic, though, is essential. You practice it until it becomes an automatic, habitual reaction to feeling the beginning stages of a panic attack.

Start with five. Five things you see. Five things you hear. Five things you (physically, NOT emotionally) feel. Then four of each, then three, and so on.

It’s okay to repeat. Don’t pressure yourself to come up with original items. That kind of defeats the purpose.

For instance, if I were having a panic attack right this minute, my counting would go something like this:

I see a soda can. I see my computer. I see my t-shirt. I see the carpet. I see my computer.

I hear the air conditioner. I hear distant traffic. I hear the dog breathing. I hear traffic. I hear my fingers clicking on the keyboard.

I feel carpet under my feet. I feel my head itching. I feel congestion in my chest. I feel the fabric of my pants against my skin. I feel my leg cramping.

I see my computer. I see the dog sleeping. I see a soda can. I see Kleenex.

I hear the traffic. I hear the dog breathing. I hear the air conditioner. I hear the air conditioner.

I feel congestion in my chest. I feel the carpet under my feet. I feel my leg cramping. I feel congestion in my chest.
…and so on, down to one of each, though it rarely takes that long.

The entire time, you focus on only your breathing, and the counting. Inhale before each observation, and exhale after. Do it as slowly and consciously as you can, in the moment. (inhale – “I see my computer.” – exhale)

Once the panic subsides, you may be tempted to return to the issue that caused the panic to surface in the first place. Unless that is absolutely necessary, table it for a while. Find something else to focus on. Bake some cookies (added bonus – comfort food!), or make some homemade soup. Paint something, even if it isn’t a very artistic thing. Paint a flower pot, or an old chair. Build something. Create something. Play a video game that eats up all of your focus, for a bit. Go for a walk. Call a friend to make plans for an upcoming event. Come back to the issue later, when you are calmer, and more able to focus on solutions, if there are any, or analysis, if it will help you.

Anyway. There it is, and I hope it helps some of you. If you haven’t tried it, please don’t discount it because it makes you feel silly. I felt utterly ridiculous, practicing this in Susan’s office, the first time around, but it has been an invaluable resource, since. I’ve yet to have a single panic attack, since learning this, that I couldn’t quash entirely on my own.

This is not, by any means, the only, or even best method. It is just one that worked for me, and a few other folks I know. The basic premise, though, is regaining control of your focus. If this tool doesn’t help you to do that, try finding another one that does.

Best wishes!

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